Thinking about the perilous state of the PA job market

Last week a series of tweets from the always wise Dr. Jessica Sowa caught my attention. Dr. Sowa tweeted:

“The market is going to be crap for a couple of years. When people are applying for Assistant Professor positions from government jobs they got out of their PhDs, let’s not do the usually BS/ can they hack it in academia thing, cool?”

“Admit it–we are snobs about this (don’t lie to me even if you lie to yourself). We want people to come straight from their PhDs but it may not be possible now. So let’s have some collective thinking about this and try to be cool for the next couple of years.”

As I have written before, my level of ignorance to academia was super high when I started. This was mostly my fault. I did not ask the right questions because my path was atypical. I did not anticipate an academic career, was never funded as a PhD student, worked full time through the process, and ultimately saw earning a PhD as an opportunity to advance my career in public policy. Due to some good advice, and some luck, I landed a job that worked for myself and my family.

But, I quickly learned that what I thought was my greatest asset as a PA academic, my practitioner experience, was seen as a liability by some. To be honest, I learned this a bit earlier when a member of my dissertation committee would not write me a letter of recommendation for an academic position, basically telling me that was not my trajectory. I get that these were choices I made. Everyone in academia has their own path, and really, we all can point to things in our experience that make us atypical.

Which brings me back to Dr. Sowa’s tweets. Right now, the harsh job market realities are being forced on new PhDs, it is not a matter of choice or ability. I totally agree with Dr. Sowa’s call for some collective rethinking. What should that look like? Well just my opinion, but, here are some questions I have:

  • Can we make it the norm to spend time as a practitioner during an academic career? For most of us, the incentives make moving back and forth between the academy and practice impossible. I think it would be helpful for the relevance of our field, and to practice, if we encouraged a back and forth. It would also make it normal to enter the field with a few years of non-academic experience.
  • Can we make more space for practitioner research in tenure decisions? I know some places already do this, but what if it was the norm?
  • Can we count years of practitioner experience toward the tenure clock? This one may be hard, and there would be a lot to think through, but it would shift our thinking.

I am thinking a lot about what comes after Covid. Our universities and our PA programs will be changed, how can we work to make sure they are changed for the better?

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